The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

History of Ethiopia


Axumite coins from 3rd century A.D.


Rock-Hewn Church in Lalibela 


Map of Africa from the Grooten Atlas of 1660

The Great City of Axum (100-900s)

Ethiopia is an ancient land full of history, but its modern projection began with the kingdom of Axum, the capital until the 900s. Axum was a very successful trading state that rose at the end of the first century A.D. because of its strategic location with access to the Mediterranean. The city grew wealthy from trade, leading to the rise of an elite class and an infrastructure. Along with commerce, trade brought Christianity to Axum, leading to the myths of an African Christian paradise. During the third century, trade exposure to the newly converted Holy Roman Empire led to the slow establishment of a new Christian state. Initially, Christianity was adopted by the elites but not the masses, but beginning with the fourth century the spread grew. Axum began producing its own money in the late third century, and this not only signaled Ethiopia’s major role in the Middle East, but the coins were labeled with crosses which, along with strategic monuments built throughout the land and inscribed with both imperial and Christian writings, aided in the spread of Christianity (Marcus, 7). The Ethiopian form of Christianity was slightly different than traditional Catholicism and was not completely accepted by Catholic Europe, particularly Portugal. Beginning with the eighth century, Axum was in decline because of Islamic expansion, and with the weakened state, a new Christian kingdom grew further south. 

Zagwe Dynasty (900-1270)

With the eighth century, as trade decreased and Muslim influences grew, Ethiopia turned inward to a state of isolation, and a new Christian state emerged at Agnew. Eventually, the leaders at Agnew usurped the central power at Axum, and formed a new dynastic line, the Zagwes. This dynasty claimed its line was descended from Moses and commenced a very orthodox period, building eleven rock-hewn churches at their capital, modern-day Lalibela (Marcus, 12). This was a turbulent period, and though they maintained some commercial relations, trade greatly dropped off because of Muslim interference at the coast. Unfortunately, this dynasty suffered from a lack of national unity, and the emperor was murdered in 1270 by Yekuno Amlak, who claimed himself emperor and began a new dynasty. 

Solomonic Dynasty (1270-1630s)

Yekuno Amlak married into an old Axum family and claimed descendance from King Solomon and the Queen of Saba, Makeda. According to the myth, on a visit to Jerusalem, Makeda was seduced by Solomon, who was then visited by God and told of Makeda’s pregnancy. Solomon sent Makeda home with instructions to send the male child back to Jerusalem. When he came of age, Menilek I did visit Jerusalem, but wished to return home, so Solomon named him the king of Ethiopia, making Ethiopia Israel’s successor (Marcus, 18). Myths like these about the Solomonic dynasty allowed for a renaissance throughtout the church and the state, and both the empire and the economy grew. 

Gondar (1636-1769)

During the Solomonic Dynasty, the capital of Ethiopia was itenerant, but this changed in 1636 with the rise of Gondar. For a little over one hundred Gondar was in renassaince period because of a thriving market which led to religious diversity and a location near Lake Tana. Unfortunately the city was weakened near the beginning of the eighteenth century because of the rise of military leaders who eventually take over the emperorship and the increasing problem of the Oromos, a ethnic group who migrated to Ethiopia from and profitted from the state's instability. When Bruce arrived to Ethiopia, Gondar was still the capital, but a military leader, Ras Mikael had killed the Solomonic emperor and taken over control. Because of this, nearly all central power was lost and the political state of Ethiopia was essentially non-exsistent. 

Prester John

According to legend, Prester John was a priest-king of an empire set in place to conquer Islam. He ruled a Christian paradise somewhere in Africa or Asia, but usually said to be in Ethiopia, as it was the only non-European Christian kingdom of the time. The myth played a key role in European interests and explorations for hundreds of years. He had been spoken of before this instance, but it is said that the basis of the great legend was a letter written in 1165 to the Byzantine emperorm Manuel Comnenus signed by Prester John, the Christian ruler of "India" (India could have referred to any land in Africa, Asia or the Middle East at the time). This was then forwarded to the Holy Roman Emperor, who promptly spread the word throughout Europe (Tibebu, 417). 

Works Cited

Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 1-47.

History of Ethiopia